Enjoying a cool, refreshing diet drink is a daily habit for many people who are trying to improve their health by dropping unwanted pounds. For postmenopausal women, however, consuming artificially sweetened sodas and juices may not be a harmless way to cut calories, according to a startling new study published in Stroke.

Here’s how the research unfolded—and the risks that were discovered…

Study details: As part of the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term study investigating strategies to prevent heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer and osteoporosis in postmenopausal women, health data was tracked for nearly 12 years on 81,714 participants who reported how often they drank diet drinks, such as low-calorie, artificially sweetened colas, sodas and fruit drinks.

Compared with study participants who consumed diet drinks less than once a week or not at all, those who drank two or more of these drinks daily were 31% more likely to have an ischemic stroke (caused by a blood clot). In addition, the frequent consumers of diet drinks were:

  • 29% more likely to develop heart disease (fatal or nonfatal heart attack).
  • 16% more likely to die from any cause.

The news was even worse for obese women—they were more than twice as likely to have a stroke if they downed two or more diet beverages a day. African-American women without previous heart disease or diabetes were nearly four times more likely to have a stroke. The results were adjusted for known stroke risk factors such as age, high blood pressure and smoking.

Caveats: Even though this study found a link between intake of diet drinks and stroke and heart disease, it was observational and does not prove that the heavy consumption of these drinks causes cardiovascular disease. The study also did not specify which artificial sweeteners or specific drinks the women had consumed, nor was there any attempt to extrapolate these results to men or younger women.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently published an advisory stating that there is inadequate scientific research to conclude that low-calorie sweetened beverages do—or do not—affect risk factors for heart disease and stroke in young children, teens or adults. The association recognized that diet drinks may help replace high-calorie, sugary beverages but added that water (plain, carbonated and unsweetened flavored) is the best option for a no-calorie drink.

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